Tag Archives: Power

Creative Mind Under Stress

The recent suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain sparked my mind to return to my interest in what happens when psychological trauma rules a mind and life rather than the mind confronting it and healing. I didn’t know either Spade or Bourdain so I’m not writing about them specifically. But I chose to make the protagonist of the Perceval series a 30-something American man, Evan Quinn, who suffered severe psychological trauma as a child and who has an aversion to any kind of psychiatric treatment because in his America the government uses psychiatric treatment as an instrument of mind and behavior control as well as a way to make someone disappear. I wanted to explore through Evan Quinn the possibilities of untreated psychological trauma. How does the mind deal with the psychological trauma? How do the mental coping mechanisms affect behavior? How do they affect the person’s thinking? Just as the physical body has its responses to trauma, so does the human mind to psychological trauma.

When a person experiences a life-threatening situation, or a situation the person perceives as life-threatening, and the person is powerless in that situation, the mind experiences psychological trauma. Some examples (not all the possibilities) of such a traumatizing situation: natural disaster, car accident, combat in war, being the victim of attempted murder, being mugged at gunpoint, being raped, and especially for children, being abused physically, sexually and/or emotionally. Once the threat is over and the person is safe, it’s important for him or her to talk about the experience, to debrief. This includes talking not only about the facts of the situation but also how the person felt, what the person was thinking during the situation, and what, if anything, the person did in response to the situation. For example, I live in Minnesota, and during tornado season over the years I’ve heard of a small town being hit by a devastating tornado, and then witnessed residents of the town talking about their experience with the media, being heard and supported, helped and comforted. This is actually a very important step toward healing the psychological trauma of the natural disaster. But what happens when the traumatized person cannot talk about the event immediately afterward and receive support, help, and comfort?

Evan Quinn experienced abuse as a child growing up. He was a powerless, defenseless child abused by a person he trusted to protect and defend him. For any child, this betrayal and injury can have a devastating effect on the child’s psyche including dissociation at the time of the trauma. When there’s no outside intervention to protect the child afterward as there was none for Evan, the mind copes by compartmentalizing the thoughts and emotions of the memory of the trauma. In other words, the mind puts the memory away in a closet. The memory isn’t gone, though. The mind takes steps of its own to protect itself and the child. So, for example, the child may become quiet, sad, afraid, and hyper-vigilant in contrast to previous behavior. The child’s thought processes change. It only takes one trauma to do the damage, and subsequent trauma reinforces the mind’s coping measures. Each person is a unique individual, and so each person will respond in a unique and individual way to a psychologically traumatizing event(s). There is a common coping mechanism, however, that manifests as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Evan Quinn has PTSD. He’s grown up living with his abuser, putting the memories of the abuse away in a mental closet even as he remembers witnessing his father abusing his mother and her response. He makes it to adulthood because of classical music and his friendship with the Caines, especially with his mentor in music, Joseph Caine. In Europe, he’s far away from his abuser and he’s finally safe. It’s usually at this point that PTSD begins to really make itself felt because the circumstances no longer require its coping and protective function. Memories will pop out of the closet in the form of flashbacks, also affecting mental function, sleep, and emotional control. For women, depression is common, as well as acting out in inappropriate ways. For men, there can be acting out, sometimes violence, paranoia, as well as depression. Hallucinations, auditory and/or visual, are not uncommon. A profound sense of hopelessness and uselessness, deep hot rage and short temper, and despair can pervade daily life. None of this happens all at once but develops over time. PTSD is a symptom of unresolved psychological trauma.

In Perceval’s Secret, Evan begins to become aware of his PTSD and it’s recognized by Klaus Leiner who offers Evan help. Evan receives other offers of help, but his aversion to psychiatric treatment and his belief that there’s nothing wrong with him prevent him from accepting those offers. The PTSD affects his thought process and the choices that he makes. How his life progresses after that is what the Perceval series reveals. My big discovery, as the writer that Evan chose to tell his story, was that power plays a crucial role — having power over others, being powerless vs. feeling powerless, and the desire to feel powerful vs. actually being powerful in oneself. And I feel often that I am only scratching the surface of this complex human experience and condition, as well as its relevance to current human life.

 

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Character: Power

 

The July/August issue of The Atlantic offers a fascinating article by Jerry Useem about how having power actually changes the human brain. The mental abilities that enable someone to rise in society into a powerful position end up disappearing once the person has gained power. The example Useem begins his article with is of former CEO of Wells Fargo John Stumpf’s performance at a congressional hearing last fall — his utter failure to “read the room.” Useem goes on to cite study after study that show how having power damages the parts of the brain that enable humans to relate to other humans and to have empathy.

 

The lust for power has motivated many a character in fiction. Power fascinates me as well as how we define power. While researching Post Traumatic Stress for Perceval’s Secret, I stumbled onto the Pandora’s box of Power, i.e. external power, or having power and/or control over other people. I learned that the people most likely to seek external power feel powerless but are not self-aware enough to recognize how they are really feeling. All they know is that having power makes them feel better. There is another kind of power: internal power. This is the individual’s self power, i.e. he feels powerful in being himself rather than feeling powerless.  This person will not seek external power over others. He simply doesn’t need it.

So, which individual is the character you’ve created? How does she perceive the world? In a way that signals her sense of powerlessness such as constantly ingratiating herself to another character? How does he respond to people? Is he manipulative? Narcissistic? Focused only on what will benefit him? Or is your character empathetic, genuinely caring of others, and not in need of control or motivated by fear? Having a bloated sense of self-worth, a common symptom of narcissism, can also mask a person’s sense of powerlessness. A character with power issues, especially one who isn’t self-aware, can end up being a villain or a victim, or ironically, both.

When you have a character that feels powerless, it’s important to figure out why that character feels powerless. Whether or not you put that part of his backstory into your story, you, the writer, need to know the reason. His powerlessness will come through in his behavior toward himself as well as other people, through his desires, professional goals, and even in how he dresses and takes care of himself. For example, he may choose a profession in which he exerts power and control over others in some way — corporate CEO, a surgeon, a government bureaucrat, or even a symphony orchestra conductor. My favorite is the co-worker who believes that she’s entitled to be the head of the company and will do anything to get there. Criminals also tend to possess a sense of powerlessness and their criminality gives them a sense of power whether it’s beating the system or taking a life.

Deep-seated fear often goes with a sense of powerlessness, and the desire for power is also a desire to be safe and secure. When the powerless gain the external power that they seek, they are most often likely to abuse that power, also. How all this manifests in human behavior can be unique to the individual and her background, and the same is true for a fictional character.  You don’t have to be a psychologist yourself in order to write a fully dimensional character who behaves in plausible ways. Be open to the possibilities.  Let your character act, speak, and think as he does and be the observer. Respect the character.  Allow the character to be himself. He’ll most likely give you his story if you’re open to all the possibilities.

Power definitely motivates characters in ways unique to each of them. Whether or not your character obtains the power he seeks could be the story your character wants to tell you.  Are you listening?